I have said that if I were to jump out our second floor window I would never reach the ground. Our otherwise reasonably unobstructed view of the Olympic Mountains is filtered through a mess of overhead wires that would act like a net, if I leaped precipitously from above. You can hardly see the sky when you look up from our street corner. It is the visual equivalent to a swarm of vuvuzela; impossible to ignore and menacingly ugly in a primal reaction sort of way; an indoor-outdoor jail of our own making. Still, it is just one familiar aspect of many, now normal residential streets in Seattle, obliterating the sky, but bringing the pleasures of modern civilization to our homes.
As neighborhoods grow, a nest of overhead wires gradually proliferates, and it seems that no one notices. But then, you do. At first, you are looking at the glorious, sweeping view of the Olympic Mountains. And then, before you know it, as if in a horror movie about man-eating vines, you are swallowed in coursing black lines that blot out the sun and pull you back, helplessly into the abyss.
As we were renovating our house in 2010, the view had become a freshly integral part of our investment. So, the filter of spindly black wires stood out in stark contrast in the foreground of my mind. I became determined to wipe out this web as if cleaning the attic of an old house. Toward the seventh month of the renovation, I thought that I would, in a disarmingly sweet, it-takes-a-village, maternal way, find out who was playing with these wires, leaving them willy-nilly all over our yard, and get the delinquent company technicians out to clean up their mess.
For years, there has been one, particularly annoying wire, lower than our second floor, invading our air space, running diagonally across our front yard to our neighbor’s house. This offending wire was like an indelible stain on a favorite shirt, or spinach in your front teeth on a first date, and could be grabbed with one jump from the excavated mud mounds that lay in our yard (the BMX course that would be transformed into a beautiful garden). This enemy wire was reminiscent of one in a film called “Toby Dammit” in which the Devil, disguised as a little girl in a white dress, uses a wire, stretched across a road, to cut off people’s heads. This wire made me mad like a little dog on a leash. And now, the contractors hinted that this wire was possibly illegally installed and thus awakened my inner Don Quixote. Like a prince breaking through the thick rose bush brambles in a fairy tale, I started cleaning the air to save the day.
I want to share and untangle the bureaucratic mess for you. It turns out that there are three organizations contributing to the cacophony of lines crisscrossing the urban horizon in Seattle: telephone (Qwest), cable (Comcast), and electric (Seattle City Light). Each has multiple wires stretched from pole to pole and crossing like a demented Cat’s Cradle in between. The power company also has a primary cable that runs from an oversized, Dairy Queen ice cream cone-looking thing to another, to a box that looks like a garbage can hanging high on another pole. All of this, of course, powers our music systems, streams our movies, loads our games. Your great, new, sleek, sexy techno stuff is fueled by a backroom of spaghetti. It is like having NASA equipment powered by a hamster on a wheel. It so lacks elegance and is entirely devoid of creative design imagination.
In the case of our house, there are wires rushing east/west, north/south, and from pole to pole in every direction, strung across streets in diagonal lines that drape through trees like bunting, and wires that parallel larger wires but then take off perpendicularly toward each house like the abrupt goodbye of a bad relationship. Wires are strung side by side like the shaky drawing of an artist with palsy. Wires meet in a bunch like herpes sores. Wires are crumpled together like a landfill or like snakes in a crypt scene in “Indiana Jones”. Wires caw at us with vague mockery and instill doubt. “Clear sky? Nevermore!”, they jeer.
One day, I called the various originating companies and got a recording at each, telling me to put in my account number (which I did not have) and wait for the next available operator, who was another relentless recording. Eventually, I got through to live humans and was proud to be able to succinctly tell why I was calling. However, most thought that I wanted service to my house. A young guy at Qwest was particularly hard to convince. He kept trying to sell me packages and put in new service. Finally, with much persistence, I settled for a partial understanding and got him to agree to send a technician.
My impossible dream of all of the technicians arriving on the same day, empathetically commiserating about my compromised view, and agreeing to put it all underground, for the whole neighborhood, for free! was quickly vanquished. Instead, Qwest sent me on an Alice in Wonderland tour of their phone departments, Seattle City Light sent me on a walkabout, and Comcast sent me on a musak-buffered, Magical Mystery Tour. I spoke with Joe, Joe’s supervisor, Steve, Tim, George, Mike, Scott, Chris, Carole, Beau, Deanna, Amy, Sean, and others. Every person was accommodating, patient, and polite. But none saw more than a pinhole of the whole picture and my wider and more objective observations were unheeded. Although I seemed to be getting somewhere, it was like working a hopelessly complicated maze. I was making progress, but, at any time, I might turn into a dead end and have to start over.
At one point, I had to reschedule a June 29th Comcast appointment and was told that they had already met me and done the work days earlier. This reminded me of a time I called a taxi in San Francisco, waited two hours, called the taxi company a number of times, and was told that they had already picked me up!
I got a Comcast appointment for one day “between 3 and 5”, got to the house on the appointed day by 2:45, waited, and then, when no one arrived, called at 4, at 4:50, and 5. We have all had this experience. The technician was finishing another job that “took longer than expected” and would come over “soon”. I called at 5:30. Eventually, a Comcast truck drove past and I ran after it, shouting. The truck miraculously returned. Still, it was not the right man, but it was a technician — a man who wore eyeglasses that were 1 ¼” thick. (I wondered how someone, certainly almost legally blind, could safely work twenty feet up in the air with high voltage wires.) Then, the original technician arrived. It was after 6 PM, and I had to leave. As I drove off, they were fixing the diagonal “trespassing line” that stretched across our yard to our neighbor’s house.
The next day, I saw that the line now draped across my neighbor’s yard like a string of pearls on a sexy, low hung décolleté. Anyone mowing the neighbor’s lawn would be hung if they weren’t watching carefully. Was this The Revenge of the Comcast Technicians? Oddly, when I saw my neighbor later and pointed out the low-slung line in her yard, she said she hadn’t noticed. As I said, you don’t notice wires until you do.
Throughout the following year, I was on first name terms with the technician in charge of power in our neighborhood. I liked Bill. He agreed with me that the lines were too low and too many. He actually lifted and simplified the lines over which he had control so that cable and telephone lines could also be raised. This helped, and for a while, the last two sets of lines did not crisscross and cast menacing shadows in front of my south-facing windows.
After my hard work, the lost hours of productive, potentially income-producing time, the dragon blood on my sword, and the sweaty efforts of the team of Merry Men I assembled to follow me in my tiny quest, only two lines were removed and one line was moved.
In the years since then, I have retired my weapons while more and more lines have been added in every direction. I know that I sound whinny. I know that I should be happy to have a house, power, and data, despite the twisted compromises. I have seen images of places like Bangladesh where the sky is entirely obliterated by wires and I know that this is the least of their challenges and may actually be a welcome symbol of progress. I know that I should count my blessings. But, like tele-marketing calls and unsolicited emails which are also nothing compared to the Big Picture issues, this is a modern day equivalent to bamboo shoots under the fingernails for me. I think that this obliteration of urban skies is the result of a lack of good general design education in the United States, which if required, would mean that power line installers would have the eyes to see the physical patterns and results of their work.
I have to stop writing now because I see some other windmills to tilt. But you can call me, because my line is installed.